You won’t find American realist artist Steve Wineinger’s paintings online easily, if at all, but for decades he has been quietly painting and mastering his art on his farm near Spokane, Washington.
The self-taught artist creates fascinating still lifes, sweeping American landscapes, and historical paintings mainly in oil, charcoal, and watercolor.
In each and every one of his paintings, Wineinger challenges himself to chase and capture elusive light on canvas, in appreciation of God’s creations. It’s a challenge he wholeheartedly embraces: “We only have so many years in this life, and there’re so many things a person could do, but to get mastery of any of them is a lifelong challenge, it seems,” he said in a telephone interview.
An Artist’s Will
Wineinger’s process of creating art is both determined and disciplined. He believes that college is not a necessary step in art training, but the basics of art do need to be mastered. “Art—I think it’s 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work,” he said.
When he was in high school, or maybe even earlier, he got his hands on a book by Norman Rockwell in which the artist explained the color palette and his own illustration process. “That book fell apart; I looked at it so much, and absorbed it. It was a hardbound book, and now it’s an assortment of pages,” he said.
For about 18 months, Wineinger studied fine art at a regional college to expand and deepen his knowledge. Mid-semester, his tutor told the class to direct any questions that they had to Wineinger because “He knows more about painting than I do.” Wineinger was flattered, but that wasn’t why he was paying tuition. He didn’t return to class.
From then on, Wineinger taught himself art, a process he likens to a rigorous version of homeschooling. He disciplined himself by following the fine art syllabus that major art institutes used. For practice, he’d copy works by artists he admired, and in doing so he was able to deconstruct the techniques they used. He’d practice every step he studied in books: from setting up models’ poses for compositions, to creating full-scale charcoal layouts, to transferring drawings onto canvases, to underpainting canvases before painting.
He kept a sketchpad on the nightstand by his bed. Before he went to bed, he would sketch something, anything: a family member, the kitchen dishes, or a piece of furniture. “It was difficult at the beginning but got easier over time,” he said.
He also sought guidance directly from other artists. In particular, he found himself gravitating toward published illustrators. They seemed to have the most discipline, a high output of work, and therefore the most experience, he said. Wineinger had several helpful conversations with illustrator Tom Lovell, a contemporary of Norman Rockwell and famous for his illustrations in National Geographic.
The Art Show Circuit
During this period, Wineinger began to show his work at major regional art shows within about a 300-mile radius from Spokane. A local agent scheduled his shows anywhere from two weeks, to a month, to three months apart.
It was a grueling show schedule because of the type of paintings Wineinger created. His oil paintings could take at least six months to dry before varnish could be applied. For him, varnishing is of utmost importance to enhance the colors and details in the work; without it, the paint would appear dull.
Wineinger began to feel that he was a painting factory. “I had to stand there [in the studio] and churn out work, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. And with such a tight show schedule, he had no time to go out in the field and research new subject matter.
As all his inventory had been sold, he decided to leave the show circuit and take commissions or paint just what he wanted.
Wineinger discovered many of his landscape subjects on hikes, often with his wife of 44 years, Rickie. His paintings “Cape Kiwanda” and “Haystack Rock at Dusk” were created after the couple’s wedding anniversary trip to the Oregon coast.
Wineinger first found Cape Kiwanda when he was researching their vacation, trawling online through photographs of the Oregon coastline.
The couple arrived in Oregon tired, having driven nearly all day. Settling into the motel, Rickie checked the weather report. Sunshine had been predicted, but the forecast for the night ahead had now changed to storms and heavy fog. They decided to head off for the hike that afternoon, swapping their much anticipated supper of fish, chips, and beer for their backpacks and camera gear.
There was no road to the cape; they had to hike along the rugged coastline. Once there, Wineinger spent some time on a rocky outcrop finding the best spot for his composition. “It was very steep, and I had to hang on to bushes and be able to hold on to my camera so we wouldn’t tumble into the ocean. … I stood in that spot for about an hour and a half, because of the light changes,” he said.
Wineinger took around 800 shots of the cape. At sunset, the light and colors change moment to moment, revealing light and shadows that are best seen when reviewing the images back in the studio, he explained.
As the couple walked back to the car at sundown, Wineinger turned around to see an amazing dusky shot. That scene became his painting “Haystack Rock at Dusk.”
Wineinger’s painting “The Tempest” came about from a different hike, this time in Hawaii where they used to own a couple of properties and where they’d spend some time every winter. Often, they’d go on hiking and photography jaunts.
One time, Wineinger happened upon a map showing the ancient Hawaiian royal sites, one of which had a koi pond. He had often felt disappointed when he looked at koi art. “They lacked the punch of the movement of the water and the distortion and the refraction, which gave it life,” he said. He effectively captured the movement of the water in “The Tempest.”
Photography, an Artist’s Tool
Wineinger stresses that “all of the photographs are merely guides.” He believes that replicating a photograph perfectly is a terrible way to produce art. “You have to change the color. You have to change the composition. You have to put things in, or take things out. There’s a lot of work to transition from a photograph to a work of art,” he said.
And that transition involves a fundamental understanding of the foundations of fine art. For example, to paint “Cape Kiwanda,” he adjusted the color palette and used five photographs to make a composite image.
Photographs can also help with different components in a composition. Once, Wineinger needed to find a mountain man, a trapper, for a painting. He found the right model at his local mall, a homeless man living behind the dumpsters. “He looked like a trapper. He was missing teeth. He looked a little wild. His hair was long and crazy,” he said. He set up the paid photoshoot in a storeroom in the mall, using a fan he had in his car to create the effect of a mountain man on horseback. Voilà! He had his trapper.
Photographs are just a tool to record the details of a subject: the form of a tree, the shape of an animal, or to record muscles or feathers. But they shouldn’t be what you try to reproduce, he added.
Another compelling reason Wineinger gives as to why blindly copying photographs doesn’t make great art is that in photographs, shadows are black. That’s not true in nature. “You can stand on the edge of a beautiful mountain or canyon and see nuances of colors. The shadows actually should be blue or purple, not black.”
Wineinger began making picture frames for his art after a trip to Europe with his wife and a friend, who had previously lived in Europe for a number of years.
His friend knew of several large art collections where the works could be viewed up close, rather than fighting tourists to get a glimpse of art in the likes of the Louvre. Wineinger was struck by the workmanship of the picture frames, and he noticed how the frame seemed to elevate the art.
“They were fabulous landscapes and still lifes, but what made them prizes wasn’t just their age but the presentation,” he said. Similarly, in America, he’d seen art up close by Hudson River School painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and was impressed not only by the art itself but also by the frame. “I think the frames are as impressive as the artwork, in many cases,” he said.
Wineinger and his son began to learn how to make frames. They connected with European frame makers and restorers, experts who worked for the Louvre or for heritage buildings. On several occasions, his son spoke to experts who, not seeing them as a professional threat, divulged their frame-finishing trade secrets to him, Wineinger said.
Wineinger hand carves some of his frames, but he also sources materials from a historic Chicago company. In the 1800s, the workshop employed Austrian and German woodcarvers to create moldings and flourishes. It’s these moldings that Wineinger sometimes uses.
For his frames, Wineinger combines the best traditional methods with today’s materials. For instance, he undercoats the frames with red paint, similar to the red clay primer used in the 1700s. He’s interested in the frame’s durability and, most importantly, the beauty of the end result.
The Aberration of Art
Wineinger ponders on the purpose of art and the artworld in general. He’s made a living from his art, as well as augmenting his income when he pursued other ventures. But he questions artwork created by living or recently deceased artists, which sells for $50 million to $150 million. “Who determines the value of those pieces? … Who determines what is to be collected?” he said.
He’s also personally known prominent oil and watercolor artists who have done very well on an international scale. But he sees a link between an artist’s character and the art they create. Of the very successful artists he’s known, he says: “They were odd. … I would not want my kids to spend the weekend with them, or I wouldn’t want my grandkids to emulate their lifestyle at all. And that’s when the light went on. Most of these things that these people produce are not beautiful: They’re dark and perverted, and some of them were done on drug trips. I know that.”
“I think we need to be asking ourselves, why have we gone this route?”
Wineinger believes that art, and even sports, is being politicized and used to shape society. “Now, it’s not just about athletic excellence. … Now, it’s about social justice. And football is not about football anymore: It’s about everything else.”
“But I believe in a chief engineer of all that we see. I believe that we were created and that everything else was created. … And with that perspective, I do believe talent is given to us, whether it’s music, dance, architecture, whatever it is; I think we just don’t conjure it up ourselves,” he said.
Wineinger believes that art used to be about capturing God’s creations on canvas or with other materials.
“I believe the purpose of art is to lift up our human existence, as well as glorifying the one who created it in the first place.”
To find out more about Steve Wineinger’s paintings, he may be contacted at SRWFineArt@gmail.com